The promise of voice technology for higher ed
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to acknowledge the role that Voicelets has played in the development of voice technology in education.
A “voice-first” world is upon us. At the Consumer Technology Association’s CES trade show this year, Google announced that there are 500 million monthly active users of its digital voice assistant. Apple reported a similarly staggering number as far back as 2018, claiming that “Siri is now actively used on more than half a billion devices.” In 2019, Amazon revealed that there have been 100 million Alexa devices sold and 100,000 Alexa Skills developed.
It’s not just the big tech companies, though, that are helping usher in this new voice era. Already today, we can simply use our voices to control the lights, the thermostat, and even car radios and navigation systems. It is unarguable that voice technology will impact education and more broadly how students learn.
Students: Leaders in early voice adoption
Young adults, and students in particular, have embraced voice assistants. In a survey of college students in Boston, we found that 70% use a voice assistant at least once per month. While mobile versions still reign supreme—with 2 1/2 times as many students using mobile voice assistants over home-based ones—habits in voice assistant usage are being formed. In fact, once a home speaker such as an Echo Dot is purchased, students begin to use the speaker much more frequently than their mobile version.
The primary use case of voice assistants today is to play music, but 66% of college students have expressed interest in using voice to help with studying as well as academic tasks such as keeping track of assignments, campus events and calendar information.
Voice: The new education modality
Within this context, voice is becoming the new education modality. The classroom is moving from paper to web to mobile, and now, to voice. Voice technology is ideal for all learners and provides a number of advantages. First: Voice is accessible. There is no fancy or expensive equipment required. Echo Dots, for instance, are affordable, at about $50 each; with frequent sales promotions, they can run as low as $20 each. This is in stark contrast to PCs and laptops—not to mention Virtual Reality headsets and equipment.
In addition, voice technology is convenient. Students can study hands-free or while on the go. We have seen that students are quite comfortable using and even talking out loud to their mobile voice assistants while walking or commuting on public transportation.
Voice technology is also compelling because of the absence of screens. Educators (and parents) now finally have a tool at their disposal that helps reduce nonstop digital bombardment and allows students to look up from their ubiquitous phones and really listen to learn.
Educators (and parents) now finally have a tool at their disposal that helps reduce nonstop digital bombardment and allows students to look up from their ubiquitous phones and really listen to learn.
Finally, and most important, voice technology unlocks auditory-based learning. It has been proven that the act of listening and speaking helps improve student learning. Learners of all types can benefit from voice-based learning to improve retention of key information. When it comes to digital equity in education, voice is the “killer app.”
Using voice to improve learning
A number of colleges and universities have experimented with voice technology to improve the student experience. They include: Arizona State University, which has voice-enabled suites in Sun Devil Stadium; Emerson College, which has built Alexa Skills, including Emerson College Radio and Emerson Em; Northeastern University, which has deployed Echo Dots around campus; and St. Louis University, which has provided Echo Dots to all incoming freshmen for use in their dorm rooms.
Of course, the mission of every college is to educate its students, so at Emerson College, we have been innovating around ways to integrate voice technology into curriculum. Last year, we conceived and developed the concept of a voice-enabled study aid. A professor who is an early adopter and believer in the power of voice used the tool to create 17 different “voicelets” comprising 150 questions—with different formats, such as flashcards, multiple choice, or true or false. Her class of 25 students accessed them using their personal smart speakers or even their phones. The voicelets were well received and used by the students to study.
This year, we are running a collegewide pilot in which all incoming freshmen who are required to take “Fundamentals of Speech Communication” are using the voice-enabled study aids. Approximately 100 unique voicelets comprising 850 questions are being used by 1,000 students to study. Early results are promising. While all students can benefit from voice technology, it seems to be especially well suited for auditory learners. These learners may include students with reading comprehension challenges, those who are visually impaired, English language learners, or anyone who learns best when interacting with the material.
Voice technology can play an important role in helping students learn and grasp the material in an interactive way. Education, after all, is about helping students learn, and that is the true promise of voice.
Special thanks to the team at Voicelets for their support of the various Voice@Emerson initiatives at Emerson College. These include administration of the collegewide student survey of voice usage, the development and deployment of the college’s official Amazon Alexa skills (e.g., Emerson Em, Emerson College Radio, Emerson College Flashbriefing), and the management of the voice-in-curriculum pilot program.
Sanjay Pothen is the director of Emerson Launch, the center for entrepreneurship and innovation at Emerson College in Boston, and oversees Voice@Emerson, the college’s various voice technology initiatives. He is a UB Tech® featured speaker, presenting the “Voice in Curriculum: How to Benefit From Voice Technology Beyond Campus Life” session.
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